I n 2020, Robin Woodhead, Sotheby's former chief executive and chairman hung up his gavel after 22 years at the auction house during which time he had been building a diverse and eclectic collection spanning antique Chinese art to contemporary photography, Classic Design to Modern painting, all spotted and selected with a connoisseur’s eye.
A Life Less Ordinary: As It Unfolds - Robin Woodhead
Today, Robin is bringing the collection to Sotheby's where, he explains, a ‘three part’ moment, revolving around the centrepiece single-owner auction As it Unfolds – Property from the Personal Collection of Robin Woodhead, will take place. Each sale will reflect an aspect of his fascinatingly multifaceted collection.
‘There are pieces pertaining to a Chinese sale in October in London,’ he explains. ‘There is also going to be a single-owner sale, which has many items we have lived with. Then there’s a third element - an exhibition of my photographs, which I've been collecting for 25 years.’
‘I think working in Sotheby’s gave me incredibly privileged access to some of the best experts in their field and to some of the greatest works of art that exist'
‘I think working in Sotheby’s, in the roles that I have had, gave me incredibly privileged access to some of the best experts in their field, to some of the greatest works of art that exist and some of the most interesting collectors internationally. Overall, it gave me a real sense of the range of man’s creative output and importantly, the confidence to collect across many different disciplines.'
Robin's collection has generated an exceptionally eclectic and informed exhibition and series of sales. Where else, for instance, would you find a Zulu meat platter alongside a Mark Wallinger lithograph or some New York Photographs by Ai Weiwei?
This sale is not the end of Robin’s collecting journey though. ‘We [Robin and his husband Christian] still explore, we still acquire, and we will carry on doing that. So, this is a comma in the collecting arc, not a full stop,’ he says.
Robin began collecting photography as a law student in London, developing a vision underpinned by a coherent and clever philosophy. ‘I was very interested in the arrival in the United States of photographers from Europe before the war,' he says. 'The impact they had on photography [there] and the way it all coalesced around the Art Institute of Chicago. This mirrored what was happening with the development of the 1960s movement in abstract art,’.
‘I wasn’t in a position to be collecting works by famous painters, but I could collect photography. I was particularly interested in less obvious works by established photographers, which are just as interesting in my view, and make up much of the collection.’
His first acquisition, made in 1991 in San Francisco, comprised of four pieces by the French photographer Louis-Emile Durandelle, who took photographs of the Paris Opera House in the 1860s. ‘I bought them as decorative objects for my apartment in London; in 1863 they were intended as architectural studies and not regarded as works of art. This purchase made me look at photography more seriously.’
His tastes developed in organic fashion. ‘The great joy of collecting is that I started out without any knowledge at all. But I sought wonderful guidance along the way. And what I realised is that by following one line, one direction, it would lead you to something else.’
‘The great joy of collecting is that I started out without any knowledge at all. But I sought wonderful guidance along the way. And what I realised is that by following one line, one direction, it would lead you to something else.’
Photographers taking bold new steps technologically also appealed - such as Arthur Siegel‘s Refugee (1945). ‘The artist is creating abstract impressions using technical skills, though Aaron Siskind’s images are equally about texture.’ Robin became increasingly interested in abstract images, appreciating the technique and vision of photographers such as Minneapolis-born Minor White (1908-1976), one of the most influential photographers of the post-war period. Windowsill Daydreaming (1958), one of White’s most evocative pieces, shows a pattern of shadows beneath an open window, blurring the boundaries between figurative and abstract forms.
‘I became more courageous in what I would look at. At the outset I was curious to learn more and that led me to new experiences.’ Innovative photographers such as Ray K. Metzker caught his eye, for instance. ‘That single sailor in Philadelphia (1973). It captures everything about a sailor, about being on his own, about leaving. It’s incredibly subtle, yet the intensity of the background is beautifully captured.’
Robin’s collecting philosophy is also reflected in his intelligent selection of classic Chinese ceramics. As he points out, of this vast, fascinating field, ‘You can find treasures beyond the obviously important and expensive so long as your eye and sense of bravery are supported by sound advice’.
A piece that holds a special place in his affections is an 18th century Ru-type vase from the Qianlong period. ‘It was something I saw sitting in a sale at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. The glaze was incredibly appealing. When you approached it from a different angle you saw different colours. The subtlety of the shape yet the strength of it—these were all things that spoke to me.’
‘Having learned more about it since then, I now appreciate it even more. It brings together rich strands of Chinese history. The glaze is inspired by 1000-year-old techniques from the Song dynasty, revered by emperors and connoisseurs alike throughout the centuries. The shape recalls bronzes of the Han dynasty 2000 years ago. Its understated form captures the Confucian ideal of humility that informed the arts of the period. The piece establishes a lineage with grand dynasties of the past as a means of projecting the political legitimacy of the later Manchu Emperor’.
There are some hidden gems in the collection that mirror Robin’s interests and individuality. A Spanish walnut travelling cabinet dating from the 17th century, known as a bargueño, dovetails with his life and was acquired in Spain, with his Spanish husband.
‘It has a wonderful element of simplicity and would have carried somebody’s personal possessions: their ink, their letters and their private papers. And it would have travelled everywhere with them.’
‘I used to travel with a briefcase which was similar in concept to this bargueño. So, for me it resonated with exactly the life that I was leading. It’s really simple, yet purposeful and its beautiful.’
Moving ahead some four centuries, and we find Grayson Perry’s work Map of An Englishman, which hung in Robin's office at Sotheby’s for years - a very personal piece. ‘It’s a map of an Englishman’s mind. Instead of places, it delineates areas of the psyche. Grayson Perry presents himself as a man, a woman and an artist which give him the freedom to explore the real nature of human identity. He dares to reveal truth and possibilities.’
'Grayson Perry presents himself as a man, a woman and an artist which give him the freedom to explore the real nature of human identity. He dares to reveal truth and possibilities.’
Another contemporary work deserving of special mention is Mona Hatoum’s Untitled. This installation is a motorised box which has a knife – half of which is serrated, the other half smooth - moving in a circle through sand. It first creates a sea of ridges; the smooth side then sweeps round, ironing them out.
‘It is so powerful - a simple discreet motor turns the blades in a very determined and constant way, yet it carries a clear message, conveyed solely in a wooden box. This is why Hatoum is so brilliant - she’s able to use simple objects to convey the essence of time and to illustrate the transient nature of our lives. It’s about fragility and resilience, love and fear - polarities that together impact each of us.’
Meanwhile, a visit to the studio of the previously exiled Chinese artist Xu Bing in Brooklyn, New York, also resulted in a key acquisition: Landscript, a depiction of a house in a landscape, fashioned from Chinese calligraphy. ‘It’s a very multi-dimensional work. It reflects a person deeply connected to [his] culture - the artist as a thinker and philosopher.’
There are older works in the collection too that reveal several underrated names, such as the French 17th-century painter Étienne Allegrain (A Classical Landscape with Figures and Cattle Resting by a Lake, Rocky Terrain Beyond). ‘I admire Allegrain, he was a very fine painter in the tradition of Poussin. This makes for a very interesting point for collectors in that it is possible to experience formidable artistry and creative pleasure from those not necessarily identified with fame - and reflects my view that you don’t have to have the greatest names to appreciate excellence’.
'I love the idea that you take a wonderful object into your collection and for a short while you can be its steward before passing it on to someone new, who in turn can create a completely new relationship'
Robin finishes by saying ‘I love the idea that you take a wonderful object into your collection and for a short while you can be its steward before passing it on to someone new, who in turn can create a completely new relationship. In this way you can combine the pleasure of both enjoyment and ensure its future legacy.’
Part of the sale proceeds will support an exciting new artists’ residency programme being developed by Robin and and his husband Christian, for Khula Education, supported by the David Rattray Foundation, a UK charity of which he is Chairman.